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J K Rowling at the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them film premiere
Image: Imago/APress

Cancel culture war inflamed by letter on 'open debate'

July 8, 2020

The publication of a letter in Harper's Magazine signed by 150 world-renowned academics, writers and artists to further free speech has amped up social media outrage after it was signed by "canceled" J. K. Rowling.


An open letter signed by international writers that expresses support for the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests also voices fear over the "vogue of public shaming" from people with opposing views.

A veiled reference to so-called "cancel culture," the letter, which will be published in Harper's Magazine in October, was released online on Tuesday. Signed by the likes of Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem, Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie, it is concerned that an "open debate" over the complex issue of police brutality and racial inequality is giving way to "dogma or coercion."    

"The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away," states the letter. "As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes."

Inevitably, the letter quickly sparked a backlash, due largely to the fact that among the 150 signatories was J. K. Rowling, who has been labeled transphobic and a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) for her controversial views on transgender people.

Jennifer Finney Boylan, an author and transgender activist, said in a Tweet that she had not realized who else had signed the open letter and was rescinding her signature. 

"I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming," she wrote, adding: "I am so sorry."

She then inevitably received criticism from supporters of the letter. Some saw this backlash as an ironic example of the cancel culture the letter opposes.


'Not being silenced' 

"This letter perfectly illustrates my issue with the 'cancel culture' trope," wrote political commentator Judd Legum on Twitter. "The signatories of this letter have bigger platforms and more resources than most other humans. They are not being silenced in any way."

After dissident thinker Noam Chomsky added his name to the 150 scholars, authors and artists who signed the letter, many of his supporters expressed their disappointment on social media. 

 A number of journalists and commentators on the left such as Glenn Greenwald agreed with the letter's principle, but believed many who signed it were being hypocritical, including author Malcolm Gladwell, who welcomed the shutting down of the Gawker news and gossip website in 2016 after it regularly parodied him. He wrote on Twitter that several signatories have in the past behaved in a way that reflects "the censorious mentality they're condemning here."

Freedom of opinion or hate speech?

Critics of the letter argued that it was too vague and generic and did not address the subject of hate speech, with some putting J. K. Rowling's views on trans people in this category. 

And in the wake of Black Lives Matter calls to defund police and remove Confederate monuments in the US, reactionary political forces have invoked freedom of speech to decry what they also deem as cancel culture. 

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"President @realDonaldTrump stands against defunding our great police officers, caving to mob rule, and cancel culture which seeks to erase our history," stated an official White House tweet from June 29. 

During Trump's vitriolic speech at Mount Rushmore to mark Independence Day, he again railed against what he called a "merciless campaign to wipe out our history." 

With the controversial Harper's letter showing that liberals in the US are equally opposed to cancel culture, some on Twitter saw this crossover as the potential end of a long-running culture war.


Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
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